BYU Spring Practice: Burning Questions

BYU opened its spring football practices Monday. Here are my burning questions for coaches and players to answer between now and April 10.

1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
“Certainly the most careful planning and thinking and praying and fasting should be done to be sure that of all decisions, this one is not wrong” (President Spencer W. Kimball). While President Kimball was speaking about celestial marriage and not about choosing the next BYU quarterback, his counsel still applies. Going back to 1974, there is a direct correlation between the team success and quarterback play. Here are a few examples:
  • 1975—BYU starts 0-3 before Gifford Nielsen takes over in the fourth game to lead a fourth quarter come from behind win.
  • 1986-1988—The quarterback factory shut down. After 10 consecutive conference championships BYU goes 0 for 3 and wins less than 10 games each year, and the quarterback who started the season is not the quarterback who ends the season.
  • 1997-1999—Paul Shoemaker was benched for Kevin Feterik and BYU is 4-4 in conference and 6-5 overall in 1997. The rest of the Feterik days are not bad, but not great either.
  • 2002-2005—Bret Engemann was benched for freshman Matt Berry, who was subsequently benched for freshman John Beck the next year. While Beck grew and matured we all suffered.
Publicly, Coach Mendenhall has said repeatedly that the quarterback race is wide open. Riley Nelson, James Lark, and Jake Heaps will all compete in spring practice. I believe it is Nelson’s job to lose. He has the experience edge and in limited action last year he showed that he has the ability to run the BYU offense. Mendenhall is not saying as much publicly for several reasons. One, there is no compelling reason to name a starter now. Two, a competition will make Nelson better. He will be more focused and be more intense in practice, in the weight room, in the film room, and in his free time. Three, with Lark fresh off a mission and Heaps new to the program, there is no way to tell who is the best and it would be foolish to not evaluate all your options before making a choice. Four, Bronco needs to keep Heaps happy. Heaps is a high profile recruit, and he needs to feel that he was given a fair shake; otherwise, he could go the path of Ben Olson.

On the other hand, this decision should not be unduly delayed. As I pointed out, history shows that the quarterback makes or breaks the season. Washington is first on the schedule. It would be wise to let the new starter get as many reps as possible come fall. I think Bronco needs a compelling reason to not start Nelson. I am aware of the groundswell of support for Heaps to start immediately, and I have no personal ties to Nelson or the Cache Valley community. My support for Nelson is that it is just the best route to follow, in my judgment. Click here for a full explanation why.

2. Will spring be effective for the offensive line?
The last reports I read had the count at eight—eight healthy lineman. Whatever the coaches did last year worked. If you didn’t know it, you would have never guessed that BYU had replaced four starters on the offensive line. It might be just as critical for the offensive line to step up this year as it was last year. A new quarterback’s best friend is a good offensive line. Stellar play by the line could add two wins to our win total and could make this team the Mountain West Conference champions. While the injured linemen can still participate in many ways, nothing is as effective as strapping it up and running plays.

3. Can the wide receivers take the next step?
The more and more I reflect on last year, the more I am convinced we needed Austin Collie. I am confident that BYU would have beat TCU and probably played in a BCS game if Collie had stayed for his senior year. (Just let me interject that I have no hard feelings about the decision he made, and his play with the Colts proved he was not jumping to the NFL prematurely.) Max Hall needed a receiver who could get open downfield against any defense. That is the kind of receiver Collie was. If BYU is going to get past TCU this year Mckay Jacobsen, O’Neill Chambers, and Luke Ashworth need to elevate their ability to shake off defenders—even faster and more athletic ones—through effectively run routes. Running backs and tight ends cannot account for over 50% of the pass receptions.

4. Will the defensive front seven be filled?
With three-fourths of the secondary back, the attention on defense will be the front seven. Only Jordan Pendleton returns up front. Call me crazy, but I am guardedly optimistic that the guys set to step in will be at least as good as those who left. That optimism comes from knowing that the coaches are able to coach up the players we have, and from hoping they have not forgotten 2008. BYU can regularly be a good defensive team, but it regularly requires added attention. I am hoping that these new guys are hungry to show the world what they got, and that they will catch a lot of teams by surprise. That being said, filling the front seven should emphasize pass rushing; we need more sacks.

That’s it, but before I go, I am sure many of you are wondering, “What about tight end?” The tight end position is not burning a hole in my pants because no position has been more consistent for BYU over the last 30 years than tight end. I am not going to lose any sleep over the departure of Dennis Pitta and Andrew George. I have no reason to doubt that whoever gets plugged in there will adequately fill that void.